Saturday, 18 June 2016

Filling In Some Empty Spaces

Management of a large Chinese city such as Nanjing isn’t easy.

There’s the growing population---fueled in large measure by the influx of countryside residents—putting an enormous strain on infrastructure and social services. There’s also a sputtering national economy, which means that tax revenue is at risk as jobs disappear; plus, Beijing becomes reluctant to part with monies that would usually be allocated to assist urban areas because it has fewer funds to disburse. The summer season, which always brings additional challenges to Nanjing because of the heat and demands on the electrical grid, is complicated this year because of increased flooding upriver from the city.

And then there’s the local military to deal with.

Nanjing is home to what had been for decades the largest and most influential military district headquarters in China. The command here has been responsible for, among other matters, the armed forces end of Taiwan affairs, and it was an incubator for a number of high-ranking military officers.

That often meant that the Nanjing military leadership was able to call on Beijing’s support, especially when its commercial and land holdings in the city and the adjoining suburbs were set to be affected by the city’s urban development, arguing that its daily operations or housing situation shouldn’t be disrupted. When Nanjing political authorities wanted access or egress to military properties for new roads or subways, the military resisted; it’s literally never been known for yielding ground locally. In that respect at least, Nanjing can sometimes be seen not so much of a metropolis that houses major military bases as a set of armed forces establishments interrupted by a city.

Over the past year however, as President Xi Jinping has pressed the Chinese military to accept far-reaching reforms—the local political authority of the Nanjing military seems to have started to erode. Whereas Nanjing had been at the core of the military system, now it is simply an important part of a more integrated command and control system that doesn’t revolve around regions, but “battle areas”. Consequently, the power of Nanjing’s military leadership to petition Beijing in matters of contention with the local authorities is much less than it had been.

One example of this development is in the area of civil defense—or more broadly, what officials call “civil air defense affairs” [人防工作]—that is, work involving the administration of facilities built to shield residents against attack from the air.

These sorts of facilities in many Chinese cities, including Beijing, were built in response to Mao’s call in the 1960s for regional governments to protect the population in the event of a nuclear attack from abroad. Nanjing is something of an exception because the shelters constructed here include an extensive underground system of bomb shelters, military bunkers, underground storage spaces for arms caches, and a subterranean transport system. Because Nanjing’s arrangements were also designed to protect command centers, troops, and military equipment, they are usually far larger than the standard city.

A recurring question for Nanjing has been what to do with these facilities. Beginning in the late 1980s, a few shelters were opened to the public, converted to dance halls, roller-skating rinks, karaoke, small establishments selling fruit juices and soda—especially popular in Nanjing’s sweltering summer, given the lack of air conditioning. In the 1990s, as the city followed Beijing’s instruction to build a market-based economy, some of the civil defense sites in Nanjing featured year-round restaurants and arcades, but they turned out to be less inviting as they were often damp and dark during other seasons; residents also had greater choices as reform took a firmer hold, and the novelty of accessing previously restricted military shelters had largely worn off. In any event, only a dozen or so of these underground facilities were made public.

Moreover, as Nanjing grew in these decades and both broader and taller buildings began to dominate the urban landscape, there was a need for deeper pilings and foundations to be sunk into what is a rather wet substratum (due to the city’s proximity to the Yangtze River). Often, construction firms would spend months pumping out tens of thousands of liters of water, only to expose sections of these underground shelters, many of which turned out to be filled with military equipment that had to be removed with construction halted for weeks or more. Some of the larger construction firms in Nanjing became military-owned, in part to deal with these special circumstances.

Now the situation is even more complicated, a collision of national initiatives and the local conditions.

The National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC, or 改委)—China’s central economic planning body whose influence is enormous—has given clear instructions (reiterated last month) that a new period of civil defense has arrived—something which actually began to be discussed in Nanjing at least 4 years ago. That’s because Beijing wants the military to get smaller and more mobile, and divest itself of old, static, and now useless forms of defense.

On the one hand, the various underground shelters shouldn’t be converted wholly to commercial ends, the NDRC admonishes, but coordinated in such a way so that national and local emergency services can still access them for their own use (largely unspecified, though likely as temporary shelter and storing supplies) without the military necessarily having priority, and educate residents about their utility if a civilian disaster should strike.

On the other hand, this decision also means that facilities previously devoted to protection in the event of a military attack are best used for other purposes.

The question is, what purposes?  And that’s where the local angle comes in.

Nanjing, like many cities, has a problem with cars: in particular, with parking, more than traffic. Local media reports that many of the existing civilian defense shelters can be used for parking—possibly as many as 5000 spaces---thereby easing some of the urban congestion.

Not surprisingly, the Nanjing military isn’t quite as enthused, pointing out that “in this new situation, the issue of civil air defense itself has yet to be resolved.” Which is to say, what happens to the requirement that the military is supposed to provide some sort of defense or recovery from air attack?

Meanwhile, on the local government side, the issue of how to manage the new spaces when they are provided is still being debated. 

Should the parking slots be sold for purchase? No, say the apparent majority.

Should the spaces be distributed in a permit system, or have regular renewal? Not decided. But as of yesterday it’s at the top of the priority list for the Nanjing government.

In China’s provinces, policy battles aren’t about accruing authority; they’re about not losing too much of it when Beijing makes a major decision and officials below have to adapt. To those looking for high-level power plays or political combat, how to best utilize some soon-to-be empty spaces may not seem very important. But from the standpoint of local governance, these are the sorts of struggles that fill the day.

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